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Three New Interviews

Three new interviews focusing on music and movies are posted. Robert Osborne, host of Turner Classic Movies, talked about TCM’s Star of the Month, Robert Redford (who’s in Utah kicking off the Sundance Film Festival) in a candid exchange about the elusive movie star (read the interview here).

Melissa Manchester sat down with me to discuss her early years with music industry mogul Clive Davis, the challenges of maintaining a 40-year career in show business and writing, recording and crowdfunding her first new album (You Gotta Love the Life) in 10 years, which debuts next month (read the interview here).

And writer and director Mike Binder (Reign Over Me, The Upside of Anger) gave me an exclusive, in-depth interview about his controversial racially-themed picture, Black or White, starring Academy Award winners Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner, which opens this Friday, January 30 (read the interview here).

Music Review: Melissa Manchester, You Gotta Love the Life

Melissa Manchester’s self-made You Gotta Love the Life, set for release on February 10 (click here to pre-order or buy as CD or download), combines a sense of triumph with grit. The recording artist’s first independent album, which, for purposes of full disclosure, I experienced during recording sessions and in post-production while storytelling for the artist’s social media, revels in that which one earns.

Melissa Manchester does it all on this record: gospel, blues, samba, ballads and pop, everything under the influence of jazz, in a variety of retrospective and introspective classic and original songs. But, after listening to You Gotta Love the Life on CD while driving and on mobile devices many times, I’ve found what I think is its theme. Throughout the winding, even wandering, journey, the mysterious and enduring singer and songwriter proclaims—and reclaims—ownership of her work and life.

Melissa Manchester, whom I recently interviewed about her career, including You Gotta Love the Life (read my exclusive interview about the new album here and my 2012 interview here), writes and sings like an emancipated woman. The Bronx native studied songwriting in New York with Paul Simon as an ingenue, backed up Bette Midler and emerged in the 1970s with such hits as “Come in from the Rain”, “Midnight Blue” and her transformative, anthemic rendition of Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager’s nuanced “Don’t Cry Out Loud”. Here, she produces with Terry Wollman a seasoned and authentic record.

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Click to pre-order or buy

The 14-song collection begins with the propulsive title track, “You Gotta Love the Life”, a horn-driven jazz pop song that keeps moving as it accounts for what a musical career really means in terms of passion, trade-offs and hard, exhaustive effort. Sharp lyrics heighten the tension as it builds and it’s unlike anything you’re likely to have heard from Melissa Manchester. The second song and the album’s first single, “Feelin’ for You”, which debuted last week at number two on the smooth jazz charts, is a sexy tune with an exquisite guitar solo by Keb’ Mo’. Melissa’s enchanting cover of the 50-year old Ronettes classic, “Be My Baby”, is followed by a catchy jazz duet with Al Jarreau, “Big Light”. Then, comes a breezy duet with Dionne Warwick, “Other End of the Phone”, Melissa Manchester’s only collaboration with the late Hal David, who wrote the lyric. “You Are My Heart”, a wedding song she wrote after the Supreme Court struck down the law forbidding gays from marriage, rounds out the optimistic first half of You Gotta Love the Life.

An Irving Berlin/Cole Porter pairing, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance/From This Moment On”, turns up the heat midway through the album. Other songs include “Claudia”, written by Melissa’s brother-in-law about her sister and featuring Dave Koz on saxophone, the ballad “Your Love is Where I Live”, reuniting her with Tom Snow, co-writer of the Grammy-winning 1982 hit single “You Should Hear How She Talks About You” (with Stevie Wonder on harmonica) and “No There There” which she wrote with Whiplash‘s Paul Reiser. An undulating, rising tune which opens each performance on her tour, “Open My Heart to Your Love”, is a hit-ready highlight.

You Gotta Love the Life gets better and I found more to appreciate with each listen. It slowly acquires a seriousness that’s frankly irresistible, because life is serious and Melissa Manchester writes and sings about life in all its glory, wonder and hardship, fulfilling an ethereal promise with what I would describe as reverence.

She saves the best for last with three final songs. “The Other One” reprises an early Melissa Manchester career theme, expressing with certainty a deeper, more committed, rediscovery of living for her own sake. “I Know Who I Am”, which she co-wrote for Tyler Perry’s 2010 movie For Colored Girls (originally recorded by Leona Lewis) is strong and stirring. A bonus track, “Something Wonderful” (Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein) from The King and I, is a richly guarded and romantic a cappella version which leaves the listener satiated while thinking and wanting more, an achievement and, hopefully, reward for this unique singer and songwriter, whose happily autonomous album is worthy of the effort with which it was obviously made.

Proving that yesterday’s established recording artist can evolve without sacrificing quality, Melissa Manchester’s first independent album is both an invitation to explore and a winking, sobering celebration of show business and life—making You Gotta Love the Life, funded by Melissa Manchester’s fans, a welcome return-to-form after 40 years in popular music.

(Click here to pre-order or buy You Gotta Love the Life as CD or download).


Interview: Melissa Manchester (2015)

Movie Review: Whiplash

whiplashPosterDramatizing single-mindedness, Whiplash, by writer and director Damien Chazelle, is a thought-provoking movie about what it takes and means to hold yourself in high esteem. Young drummer Andrew (Miles Teller, Divergent) begins to learn at the outset from his master (J.K. Simmons, Spider-Man) during an interrupted solo session when he doesn’t even realize that he’s being taught. That his first instruction is a brief, powerful exercise in how to listen to the teacher fits the film’s theme that great work is ultimately learned, practiced and mastered alone. Whatever praise the pupil deserves that does come from others, including the brutal teacher, must be earned. Andrew’s estimate of himself comes first.

This is one of life’s most important lessons, delivered here in terms of jazz. Chazelle reaches his theme on many levels, overpowering Whiplash with Simmons’ remarkable performance as an emasculating music conservatory teacher who is a tyrant to seed the finer parts of the story. “Watch your step,” a sign reads during opening scenes. This applies to the prodigy, who lives alone with his single father (Paul Reiser), a writer who mixes Raisinets with popcorn and serves as a contrast to Simmons’ overbearing character. If the teacher is too hard—in fact, he’s beyond harsh—the parent is too soft. Their student and son, Andrew, represents the potential for the whole man—one who is exactly right. The bright young student wholly commits to the pursuit of excellence, to getting to practice on time, to feeding his talent for drumming by studying music, bandaging bloodied hands and focusing on each lesson a teacher’s tirade is presumably intended to yield—all while balancing romance with a girl who works at the local movie theater (Melissa Benoist).

Winning a spot in the core band is Andrew’s goal. Understanding that being the best means enduring the worst is depicted as Andrew’s unintended gift.

This more than anything may be the near-psychotic teacher’s point, which may come too late when rivals step in, compete and, one by one, rotate in a taut, tense drive to compete with other drummers and perform for prizes. The cast is excellent, especially principals Teller and Simmons but also Reiser as the second-hander parent and Benoist, who shines in an agonizing scene as the young woman.

The story is full of conflict and resolution, culminating in a climax which finally, entirely and properly takes place out of school, among the living, where practice meets theory in an unforgettable exchange. The stakes are high—anxiety, pressure, suicide come into play—especially for coddled, entitled generations for whom the Simmons character renders a sadistic blend of practice, contempt and deliverance. Whiplash comes with melodramatic predictability and horrifying methods based on the notion that reaching one’s potential precludes quiet guidance and encouragement. But, in Andrew, there are multiple layers of precise and pointed wisdom about activating the best within. The sting is primarily and intellectually motivational—observe Reiser’s father as a foil and what happens to the teacher—and it emanates from the crackling mind of one man, his instrument and whether he earns an upward glance, including everything it gives and takes.

Whiplash is extreme, which is to say it’s condensed, stylized and exaggerated in generating suspense and expressing its theme. In dramatizing something that everyone should already know—that being the best entails an exhaustive expenditure of effort, which, sadly, most no longer consider, let alone think about—the film seems to sanction the view that gaining value necessitates inducing pain and suffering. The creative mind atrophies and expires without proper recognition and encouragement and the conviction that achieving one’s values is possible. In this regard, Whiplash takes positive reinforcement for granted. But the artist achieves greatness through single-minded commitment and this Whiplash delivers with verve. That it feels revolutionary is evidence that the culture is abundant in the other, wilted, kind of movie about genius—movies depicting men of ability as deficient, such as Rain Man and The Aviator—which makes Whiplash, despite its wild-eyed music teacher, no less a movie that’s very well done.

Happy Birthday, Elvis

Elvis_(1979_film)For Elvis Presley’s birthday, I’ve reviewed ABC’s outstanding 1979 telefilm, Elvis (click on image to buy the DVD). Read the review here. Whatever one thinks of Elvis Presley and rock-n-roll, this is an exceptional movie.

Olivia Newton-John to Release New 2-Disc Live in Las Vegas

ONJ_LiveInLasVegas_webLook for a new, live album from Olivia Newton-John sooner than later.

The singer and actress recently announced that she’s making a two-disc album based on her first headline residency in Las Vegas, which premiered last spring (read my review here). The live album, Summer Nights: Live in Las Vegas and pictured here, will presumably include songs from her set list for the Flamingo Las Vegas show. This means it’s essentially a greatest hits live album, though a track listing has not yet been disclosed.

Olivia recorded an extended play record last year, Hotel Sessions, with her nephew, Brett Goldsmith, which I discussed with Brett in an exclusive interview. Previously, her last new recording to go on sale was This Christmas with John Travolta (read my review here) in 2012.